How to Cope With Losing a Pet: The Day My Dog Died
We all have intense moments in our lives which leave imprints that last forever. They can be wonderful and fantastic memories, or dreadful and ghastly. Whatever the case may be, memories never truly leave our mind. One such moment which is frozen in time for me is the day my first dog Pepper died. This actually happened over 30 years ago, but I remember it like it was yesterday. It is still that vivid and clear in my brain. Pepper was my best friend in what can only be called a very troubled childhood. My father had run off from our family when I was at a very young age. This left my brother, Pepper, and me living with my mother who was always working to make ends meet. It is in this tangled web of poverty and turmoil that Pepper and I formed an unbreakable bond. He was an affectionate, loyal, and devoted Shetland Sheepdog. Everywhere I went he came. For all intents and purposes, we were virtually inseparable.
Then one day out of the blue, my father had returned home in an effort to reconnect with my brother and me. It took some time, but after about a month we were partaking in somewhat regular visits. On one particular weekend, he decided to take us with him to his friend’s cottage. I was reluctant to go anywhere without my true buddy Pepper and I begged and pleaded that he be allowed to come as well. After much pestering, my father agreed and Pepper accompanied us to the cottage. This was to be the last trip we ever took together. Upon our very arrival, Pepper somehow jumped out the open door of our parked car and took off after a fleeing rabbit. He chased the rabbit right onto the highway where they were both hit and killed by a truck. That was the day my dog died.
The sorrow I felt after the loss of Pepper was extreme. I was utterly inconsolable. I carried this guilt and grief with me for years and would not even consider the option of getting another dog. I saw that prospect as an act of ultimate betrayal. However, when I finally learned how to cope with losing Pepper, I was once again able to enjoy having pets in my life again. It is bitterly sad to lose your beloved pet, but that grief is only intensified if you are never able to love another. Helping other pet owners is essentially why I have written this article. Read on to discover the various ways I learned how to cope with losing a pet, which made life better for me and my adopted dogs.
1. Recognize That Grief Does Not Follow a Schedule
There are many different theories in regards to how people experience grief. One of the most popular is from the book On Grief and Grieving, by psychiatrist Elizabeth Kubler-Ross and David Kessler. In it, they contend that the 5 stages of grief are denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. When I think back to the death of my dog Pepper, I did undergo these 5 stages, but I had other emotions and stages as well. Also, they did not really fall into any “set” order. It is very important to remember that everyone grieves differently and according to their own experiences.
While I certainly underwent the grief process, my feelings and emotions would change daily and in a back and forth motion. Just when I thought I had begun to accept the death, I would be hit with waves of anger, guilt, and depression. There was not any type of neat and orderly progression. I learned that grief does not follow any type of preordained schedule. I also discovered that being able to cope meant understanding it was fine to feel how I needed to at that moment.
2. It’s Ok to Cry
In order to come to terms with the loss of your pet, you will first have to give yourself permission to grieve. While this may seem a little obvious at first, it is nevertheless very difficult to do. According to grief coach, Dora Carpenter, our society is typically a fast paced environment which does not have much patience for a long grieving process. We are expected to get over it quickly and move on.
When considering that we have lost something which we love dearly, such expectations are ridiculous. Instead of feeling bad or guilty about grieving for your pet, try to understand that it is a necessary part of healing. This whole process will also more than likely be accompanied by many tears. That too is perfectly fine and a much-needed part of the process. In fact, in a study conducted by researcher William Frey, it was found that emotional tears contained toxic substances that build up during emotional stress. Crying, in turn, is a beneficial process which removes toxins from the body. In other words, crying it out makes a person feel much better. Considering all of this, giving yourself permission to grieve and cry is an actual key coping strategy when dealing with the death of a beloved pet.
3. Find Meaningful Support
As sure as the sun will come up tomorrow, you will encounter people who will minimize your loss. Unfortunate comments such as, “It was just a pet, you can get a new one,” will be made in attempt to make you feel “better.” In my own case, my father’s favorite line was to tell me it could have been much worse and I was lucky someone other than my dog didn’t get hurt.
Believe it or not, these people are actually trying to help in their own way. However, what they are actually doing in reality is minimizing your heartbreaking loss and making the situation much worse. They could not possibly understand the bond you had with your pet. It is best to avoid these individuals until you are in a better place emotionally. That does not mean that you should avoid everyone however. There are a number of people and support groups who will be understanding and give you an empathetic and sympathetic ear to express your grief to. Fellow pet lovers, veterinarians, grief counselors and pet loss support groups are wonderful places to turn. The following books and support websites are excellent resources to help you learn to cope with losing a pet:
- Grieving the Death of a Pet, by B.J. Carmack
- Saying Goodbye to the Pet you Love, by L.A. Green and J. Landis
- How to Roar: Pet Loss Grief Recovery, by Robin Jean Brown
- The Loss of a Pet, by Wallace Sife
- When a Family Pet Dies: A Guide to Dealing with Children’s Loss, by Joann Tuzeo-Jarolmen
Support Websites and Hotlines:
- The Animal Love and Loss Network (on Facebook).
- ASPCA National Pet Loss Helpline (1- 877-474-3310).
- Rainbow Bridge.
- The Humane Society of the United States. Information on Coping With the loss of a Pet.
- The Association for Pet Loss and Bereavement. (non-profit association dedicated to helping people cope with the loss of a pet).
4. Memorialize Your Pet
One of the most valuable methods for coping with the loss of a pet is planning a memorial. This can take many forms such as:
- Planning a funeral or memorial service.
- Burying your pet’s ashes underneath a tree which is newly planted in their honor.
- Creating a plaque in memory of your beloved pet which is placed at their final resting place.
- Donate in your pet’s name to organizations which help animals.
- Put together a slideshow of your favorite moments with your pet.
Whatever the case may be, the memorial is an opportunity to come to terms with your loss. It will essentially force you to face the loss and begin the very important grieving process. It will also allow you to relive many of the great memories you had with your pet. Furthermore, you will be able to connect with others who understand your loss and can provide that supportive network which you will need. Lastly, it will honor the life of your pet and will stand as an everlasting tribute to their life.
Our goal is not to forget about our pet . . . it is to learn how to cope with losing them. In my personal circumstance, when Pepper died, none of this occurred. There was never any celebration of life or any type of closure. He was just gone. This left an empty hole in my heart which took a lot of time and deliberate effort to repair.
5. Take Care of Yourself
When considering grief, many individuals see it as a sad and tragic time. While that is certainly true, it is also much more than that. Grieving is actually an exhausting process which takes a tremendous toll on a person emotionally, mentally and physically. It takes an abundance of energy to grieve.
Unfortunately, people who are undergoing this emotional turmoil will not tend to take care of themselves very well. Lack of sleep, poor eating habits, weakened immune systems and little exercise are all typical when grieving the loss of your beloved pet. However, to properly cope with this loss it is vitally important to reverse this unhealthy trend and take proper care of yourself. For instance, eating nutritious food can provide you with essential vitamins and minerals which will help your physical health and improve your mood at the same time. Proper sleep quality is also vital to self-care and has a huge impact on improving emotional stability and mood. Lastly, exercise will produce pain-killing endorphins in the body which will, in turn, improve mood and feelings of well-being.
6. Plan Ahead for Triggers
One of the most difficult things for me to handle when I was dealing with the death of my dog Pepper, were the constant reminders of him. We were inseparable and did everything together, and as such, I was reminded of him and our time together every single day. Something as simple as walking down the pet food aisle in the grocery store, or passing our favorite park, would bring forth a flood of emotions and grief. In truth, I was constantly encountering things which would trigger my grief in a negative way. It was only when I acknowledged and planned ahead for these inevitable triggers that I was truly able to reverse this negative trend.
Essentially, the constant triggers were reawakening grief within me. I would immediately remember Pepper, and more importantly . . . the day he died. When I was triggered I did not recall the amazing times which we had spent together. I was entirely fixated upon the day he died. After the passage of time, I began to accept that there would always be triggers, and I began to prepare for them. They could not simply just be avoided.
I slowly began to turn the negative into a positive. I would force that awful day out of my head and deliberately remember the fun and loving times we had spent together. In this way, the memories which were triggered began to be pleasant and happy ones. It was not an easy process and there were setbacks. However, it was one of the most powerful coping mechanisms I was able to employ. Instead of crying when triggered, I would often smile. To properly prepare and plan ahead for triggers, the following are some useful steps:
- Always be prepared: Realize and acknowledge that inevitable triggers will be everywhere
- Focus on the positive: Remember the good times you had with your pet when your memories are triggered. Try to recall the laughing and playing.
- Employ distraction techniques: Sometimes a memory or trigger will simply be too raw and powerful (such as a doggy birthday). Use a distraction technique such as getting together with friends to get through the day.
- Acknowledge various emotions: There will be a number of emotions you encounter when learning to accept and plan ahead for triggers. You may be laughing and crying at the same time!
- Be easy on yourself: It all takes time and there will be struggles. Be easy on yourself and move forward at your own speed.
7. Be Kind to Others
There can be little doubt that being patient and kind to yourself is a key part of coping with the grief which accompanies losing a pet. Interestingly, being good and kind to others will help you a great deal as well. There are a number of simple but effective ways in which we can be kind to others. Some typical examples are:
- Showing a genuine interest in them.
- Smiling and being polite.
- Helping with daily tasks.
- Volunteering your time to help out a worthy cause.
- Donating to important animal rescue organizations.
While all of these methods will help others, they are also great ways to cope with losing a pet. For instance, they will distract us from the sadness and grief which we are experiencing. Even these fleeting distractions are so very much appreciated. Also, kindness greatly improves the way we feel physically, mentally, and emotionally. When we are kind, a number of stress-reducing and calming chemicals such as serotonin and oxytocin are released into the body. In turn, this all works together to make the individual feel less anxious, happier and more relaxed. Being kind to others is an excellent way to cope with losing a pet. Kindness, too, benefits ourselves as well as others!
8. Maintain a Routine
The ability to keep a consistent routine in your life can be a very useful way to help cope with the loss of a pet. It will provide purpose and structure in your life and distract you from the overwhelming sadness. Getting back to your usual routines, hobbies and activities will bring a whole new level of happiness and enjoyment into what can otherwise be a very unbearable time.
Also, you may be responsible for other pets and this is an important factor which should not be overlooked. If that is indeed the case, they are going to need consistent structure and routines as well. Similar to you, your other pets will very likely be mourning the loss, too. By getting back to routines and schedules, you will be helping them and yourself deal with the loss of your pet.
9. Consider Planning to Get a New Pet
Our final method to cope with the loss of a pet is somewhat controversial. Many people will begin planning to get a new pet to help ease the passing of their departed one. However, it is important to note that this is something which is very personal in nature and everyone will approach it differently. Some people will want to do this immediately, while others will wait years or have no interest whatsoever in ever getting a new pet.
It is important that if someone does decide to plan to get a new pet, that they are clearly ready for it and not just doing it as a virtual “rebound reaction.” This would not be fair to the memory of their deceased pet, and certainly not to the new animal. When and if you are ready to start planning for a new pet, it is very likely that you will just know. There should be a feeling of peace within you. Still sadness, yes, but also peace. Not only will this help you with the grieving process, but it will assist another animal as well. There are countless animals which need to be adopted to a good home. You can make that happen for them as you continue to cope and come to terms with the loss of your pet.
The loss of your pet can be an incredibly sad and challenging time. My personal opinion is that the loss of my first dog was one of the most difficult times of my life. I could barely function for a long period of time. It was that devastating! However, I eventually learned how to cope with the loss of my pet.
It was certainly not an easy experience. There were many ups and downs as I tried to figure it all out on my own. That was 30 years ago and the memories are still fresh within my mind. However, the difference is that I now remember the good times with a smile on my face. Nevertheless, while writing this article, I often had to look at the words while my vision was blurred by tears. It produced a range of emotions within me as I virtually relived the past. My genuine hope remains that my own experience will help others learn how to cope with losing a pet. If that was accomplished then it was well worth it.
Please Contribute to the Discussion:
What do you feel the best coping method is?
- On Grief And Grieving. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross M.D. and David Kessler. 2014
- Give Yourself Permission To Grieve. Dora Carpenter. Ezine articles. 2017
- The Miracle Of Tears. Jeremy Bergman. 1993
- Ten Ways to Cope With the Loss of your Pet. Cedarview Animal Hospital. Ottawa
- Three Benefits of Memorial Tributes. Beth Jackson. Beryl Martin Tributes. 2015
- Happy Brain, Happy Life. Susan Reynolds. Psychology Today. 2011
- What is Kindness? The Positive Psychopedia
- 5 Ways To Deal With A Pet’s Death. Aleisha Fetters. Prevention Magazine. 2012
- Ten Tips On Coping With Pet Loss. Moira Anderson Allen, M.Ed. The Pet Loss Support Page